A Small Detail Behind Wisconsin Protests Illustrates Why Big Change is Needed

Wendy Lynch

A doctor’s excuse is normally a harmless slip of paper. But in the heated debate over public bargaining rights in Wisconsin, it is a clear illustration of just how disconnected workers can be from the very cause for which they are fighting.

It’s a dramatic scene.  The Wisconsin legislative process has all but ground to a halt as democratic lawmakers actually fled to a nearby state and thousands of state workers picket and protest in defense of their right to bargain collectively.  The Governor insists that the state has insufficient funds to support union demands and wants unions eliminated or severely restricted.  The unions, in return, insist that they will negotiate in good faith to help with the budget crisis, and that they will be prudent with tax-payer money while times are hard.

Buried in coverage of the political theatrics, an interesting detail caught my attention:  Doctor’s notes for protesters spark controversy.

Apparently, state teachers have been seeking and getting doctor’s excuses in order to miss work (presumably with pay) and attend protests.  A few doctors have even set up a location near the capital to provide hundreds of excuses more conveniently.  One doctor stated that many protesters were suffering from obvious stress (which apparently justifies his “medical” care).

Controversy surrounding the doctors’ excuses has centered mostly on medical ethics and whether this is an appropriate role for the profession, especially for state-employed physicians.  However, many other ethical questions come to mind.

Recall what protesters are fighting for.

At the core of their argument, union members want the state (and tax payers who fund its operations) to trust that they are reliable and responsible stewards of the state’s resources.   They want citizens to value their contribution as employees and continue to reward their work.  In arguing that their collective bargaining should continue, they want tax payers to believe union negotiating power promotes fairness for their workers, rather than a strong-armed threat for ever-larger entitlements.

In this context, a little white lie on a small slip of paper casts a large, dark shadow.

Rather than blaming doctors for writing excuses, my attention is drawn to the workers requesting them.  While shouting and picketing about getting more respect, let’s list the implications of getting a false (or at least exaggerated) doctor’s excuse:

  • Being in possession of a falsified document allows me to get paid for not working.
  • Being compensated equally to those who stayed on the job and educated the students left behind.
  • Generating medical expense to the state plan if the doctor charges an office visit to issue my excuse.
  • Creating a medical reason for not working, when the reason is not fundamentally medical.

One can assume that these implications did not occur to most workers, which is the biggest problem of all.  None of us should expect as much pay for not working as for working.  None of us should overlook the cost associated with time off, especially false use of sick leave.  None of us should ignore the true cost of unnecessary use of healthcare services.  And, none of us should use illness labels to avoid difficult situations in other parts of life.  But these workers did, as do many of us.

The reason workers behave this way?  Because they perceive healthcare and time off as OPM (other people’s money) and they do not take ownership for its use.  But wait, isn’t that is exactly what these union members were fighting to convince us they can be trusted to do?


1.             Hobson, K.Doctors’ Notes for Wisconsin Protesters Spark Controversy. February 22, 2011; http://blogs.wsj.com/health/2011/02/22/doctors-notes-for-wisconsin-protestors-spark-controversy/ (accessed February 27, 2011).

2.             Associated Press.Excuse notes from docs at protests draw scrutiny. February 20, 2011; http://www.forbes.com/feeds/ap/2011/02/20/general-us-wisconsin-budget-doctor-apos-s-notes_8317930.html (accessed February 27, 2011).

One thought on “A Small Detail Behind Wisconsin Protests Illustrates Why Big Change is Needed

  1. I don’t even know where to begin with this warped viewpoint. Union members fought and died so that working people would have sick days, vacation, weekends and living wages. Walker is assaulting those rights — just so he can “pay” for the money he’s given away to his Walmart multinational buddies in the form of additional tax breaks. Those teachers were sick all right. I’m sick at the thought of it. And, earth to Wendy — people who are valued at work show up. You spend all your time villifying and undermining your employees, well don’t be surprised when they stop giving you their best. That, after all, is what is behind Walker’s, and the GOPers’, union-busting mission. Make everyone (except your chose few billionaires and their toadies) so poor and oppressed they’ll work for pennies and die before they need any health care.

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